Best of PR in 2011 (so far)


When it comes to crisis communications, there is no single formula that can be applied in all circumstances. Having a contingency plan written up can only take you so far in the event of a disaster. What really counts is to have people thinking on their toes, thinking strategically, and just thinking with plain common sense.

In 2011 alone, I’ve seen plenty of examples of PR disasters – whether created by natural disaster or from the mouths of idiots – and I’ve seen how PR practitioners took the reins differently in each situation. In my opinion, these are the PR efforts that really deserve ’attaboys from 2011, so far.

Taco Bell

In January, Taco Bell was slapped with a class action lawsuit from a Californian woman claiming the company was misrepresenting the quality of its beef. The lawsuit alleged that the meat advertised by Taco Bell did not meet the USDA’s minimum requirements to identify itself as a beef product, and that the meat was actually made with an unknown substance called “taco meat filling.”

Right off the bat, Taco Bell jumped on the issue by taking a “strong offense is the best defense” approach. CEO Greg Creed was visible and forthcoming from the start, and the company printed humorous, full-page ads in several mainstream publications. The company also set up a microsite directed off of its main website, which defended the beef, entertainingly educated the public about what exactly was in its “secret recipe,” and even notified customers when the lawsuit was dropped in April – with absolutely no money exchanged between Taco Bell and its accuser.

In my opinion, the company handled its PR efforts flawlessly. They defended the product without making personal attacks, the head of the company was visible and informative through the entire process, and they showed humor and creativity in their approach. Not to mention, the day we discussed this lawsuit in class, I’m fairly certain that at least 40% of the students secretly hit up the Taco Bell drive-thru on their way home from class. Just saying.

Southwest Airlines

On April Fool’s Day this year, the fuselage of a Boeing 737 unexpectedly tore open midair, with nearly 120 passengers aboard on route to Sacramento by way of Phoenix. Taking a unique approach outside of the industry norm of waiting for regulatory recommendations, the airline immediately landed the plane safely in Yuma, Arizona (all passengers were unharmed). Amidst all the chaos, passengers on board the plane were snapping pictures, tweeting, and texting loved ones. One man even sent his wife the chilling message, “Plane going down. Love you.”

So what did Southwest do? In a bold move, Southwest canceled over 600 flights and delayed nearly 3,000 flights the same day. For a company centered on customer service, that was a pretty big deal.

When Boeing officials were unable to confirm what had caused the terrifying six-foot tear, CEO Gary Kelly agreed to land all Boeing 737s. As soon as the flight landed safely, Southwest executives met and decided their next steps should focus on taking care of the customers and assessing the damage. The airline kept press and passengers up-to-date with information as soon as it was released, and performed an in-depth inspection of the plane in order to identify the cause of the incident, which ended up being subsurface cracks that a visible inspection would not have been able to identify.

Southwest has had its fair share of maintenance troubles and passenger complaints in the past, and the company always seems to pull through in its PR efforts. This was another example of how to leverage a terrifying instance into a communications success.

Red Cross

In February, mild-mannered staffer Gloria Huang accidently tweeted with her company handle instead of her personal account, and thus began the Red Cross Rogue Tweet Scandal of 2011. The tweet read, “Ryan found two more 4 bottle packs of Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch beer…. When we drink we do it right #gettngslizzerd,” and after she sent it, she went to bed without another thought.

In the middle of the night, Wendy Harman, social media director for the Red Cross, got a call about the message and immediately removed it from the Red Cross’ Twitter page. Still, the tweet had been visible for over an hour, which can seem more like days in the social media universe. Instead of ousting the employee and fumbling to cover up the mess, the Red Cross took a humorous approach and sent out the tweet: “We’ve deleted the rogue tweet, but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we’ve confiscated the keys.”

It was such a graceful recovery that even Dogfish took note and tweeted out, “ @dogfishbeer fans, donate 2 @redcross 2day. Tweet with #gettngslizzerd,” and provided a link to where readers could donate to the cause. I think this was just about the coolest thing to come out of an accidental tweet. Obviously, Huang was apologetic and embarrassed, but she kept her job and indirectly lent a hand in boosting donations for her company. We should all take a page from the Red Cross’ PR manual for what to do when your employees accidently get slizzerd on Twitter.

Of course, there were plenty of PR duds in 2011 as well, but we’ll save those for another post…

Happy Blogging,


2 Responses to “Best of PR in 2011 (so far)”
  1. Hi Katy! This is Gloria from the Red Cross. Thanks for writing about our gaffe and for the kind words. We’re glad everything turned out okay and that it’s been a useful story for people. 🙂

    Take care,

  2. Thanks so much for the comment, Gloria! I think all the students in our class could relate to the slip up. We’re only human, so it was nice to see the Red Cross recognize that and handle the situation with class.

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